Engineered Failure

I’ve heard the automotive industry used as an example of an industry where they’ve kept the technology and efficientcy as far behind its possibilities to insure public dependence on the product, and their pockets full.
Does this method of engineering (things to break) have a specific terminology, or does anyone know any other examples I could search under to find related information or research?

Planned obsolescence might be what you’re looking for.

The automotive industry isn’t really a good example of this. It is highly competitive and really pushes technology and efficiency. I would question any info you have that suggests otherwise (there are a lot of crackpots who think we are intentionally witholding revolutionary technology that would allow automobiles to get something like 200 mpg and such just for profit reasons). Competition is so stiff that the auto maker’s pockets aren’t very full these days.

A much better example is light bulbs. They are specifically engineered with a limited life span so that consumers will keep buying more of them.

A lot of things are designed cheap, but they are designed with an emphasis on cost vs. reliability, which is not quite the same as planned obsolescence. A VCR for example isn’t designed with the thought that you will go out and replace it in 2 years (the light bulb mentality) but it is designed cheap because consumers tend to use cost as their most important factor in their buying decisions.

An unfortunate phenomenon of obsolescence also occurs in computing. Since it’s reasonable to expect that your current coimputer will be unable to run modern programs in 3 years, computers don’t need to be built to last longer than that.

It stinks. Especially since the measure of modern software is Microsoft bloatware.

In any case, you question about planned obsolesence… manafacturers who do not advertise specifically for QUALITY and LIFE will generally fail soon after their warranties run out. The products are tested, and some stats are run to determine how long the maanfacturer wants to offer the warranty for.
For instance, if said company wants to pay out for less than 5% of its warranties, and tests indicate that the product will fail after 1100 days with a standard deviation of 10 days, then… stink, I’ve forgotten where my Sd chart is. In any case, it’s a best guess, with pessismistic expectations. A 3-year warranty would be proper for said situation though.
I don’t think that actually planning to release inferior products is all that common. Marketplace competition ensures that some one can crow “our stuff lasts longer!” and thus you’re not about to build intentionally bad stuff.

What examples of cites can you give to back that up? Yes, ordinary light bulbs have a limited life but as with all products it is a tradeoff for low initial cost. Longer life bulbs such as halogen double envelope types have longer life but may have several times the initial cost. As an example I use Philips Halogena bulbs for the modeling lights in my studio strobes. I can drop one on pavement and break the outer envelope and it still works. All well and good but not everyone wants to pay $4 for a bulb.

Re: Computers and expected lifetimes.

Hard drive manufacturers have recently switched to 1 year warranties from 3 year ones. Sigh.

I don’t have numbers handy, but I think if you do the math you’ll find that most complaints about bloatware are unfounded. Sure Microsoft software is much bigger than it was in version 1. It also does more. If you want to calculate its “bloat” and how that affects your upgrade requirments, why not look at something like
(hard disk cost per meg) * (size of MS Word EXE and libraries)
I suspect that the dollar-cost of the hard drive space required for MS Word 2000 is considerably less now than the cost for the drive space for MS Word 1.0 back when it came out. It’s gotten bigger, but it’s also gotten less expensive to meet its requirements.

There are certainly enormous inefficiencies in a lot of applications that cause them to be bigger than they need to be, but I believe that software requirements tend to increase more slowly than hardware capabilities. I know for a fact that every application I have now on my fancy new machine performs much faster than its analogous application did on my PC AT running DOS back in the early 1980s. Microsoft Word was leaner back then, but it didn’t perform any faster on the hardware then than the new version does now. That means that all the fancy new features in the software don’t come anywhere near matching the increased capabilities of the hardware.

I believe “planned obsolescence” in computer hardware is generally a fallacy designed to rationalize the purchase of the latest-greatest machine. That is, people cite it as a reason to go get the gadget they want. I have plenty of old hardware around, some of it 8-10 years old. Sure it’s slow compared to the new boxes but it’s not obsolete because it does exactly what it was designed to do and I still need it to do that. The only time it’s really obsolete is when I change its mission to be something it was never designed for (say, wanting a USB port and Win2000 on an 80s vintage machine). Obviously you need newer hardware to run newer software, but you’re free to keep running the old versions of software that still do exactly what they did when you bought them and perform just right on the hardware of the same era. If you want to upgrade for new features, you can’t logically expect that new features come at absolutely no cost in processing speed or storage requirements.

As I recall, planned obsolescence was first used to describe automotive body design in the 50’s. Before then, it was typical to keep an essentially unchanged model in the line-up for years. But GM figured they could afford to change model design every year if they shared a lot of each year’s body panels among their various divisions. So in one model year, a given body platform might be the basis for a certain model Chevrolet, and a certain model Buick, and a certain model Pontiac, etc. But the next year, each body was redesigned for a new look (again shared among the GM divisions). The obsolescence was a matter of style, not of mechanical reliability.

The motive, of course, was to increase new car sales by giving consumers a reason to get a new model before their old car was worn out. The idea of the average Joe routinely getting a new car every year or two was born.

While this is certainly true today, it wasn’t necessarily the case before the mid 70s, when Toyota and Nissan entered the market.

I’m in the middle of David Halberstam’s The Reckoning, and he describes plenty of occasions where the big three behaved more like the airlines (in terms of pricing, and to some extent, technological) strategies than actual product manufacturers.

Competition schmompetiton. If competition becomes too stiff, the first thing you try is to form a cartel, and agree on each other’s prices and quality. This is what to expect from a free market, until something like anti-trust laws counteracts it and the contrary is proven for every specific case.

Say competition had forced the light bulb prices down as low as they can get, and no one hardly made any profit. Now, more efficient bulbs got invented, but you would lose money selling them because they last longer, so you just don’t. There’s nobody else who could afford to sell them either, so nobody will or can force you to. It doesn’t take a cartel for all manufacturers to silently agree on not ruining themselves: I don’t have to ruin your meagre profit if you don’t ruin mine.

But there still isn’t a way for anybody to make a profit. If you tried to sell a product with a better quality or at a lower price, you would slip below the threshold where you make less money than before, and if this is below zero that’s bad. You already are forced to agree on the lowest common denominator, so why not form a cartel if you can, and agree on artificially raising this threshold?

And that’s exactly what happened with light bulbs. The only cite I found is this German “Die Zeit” article:

I’m not saying that cars and light bulbs (and oil, and eye glasses, and aluminium, and…) are the same and that cartel members don’t try to kill each other by other means than price or quality, or that there always are ‘official’ cartels with simple agreements between them.

But you just expect them trying to screw us as much as we allow them to, don’t you?

Engineered Failure is actually a vital method of safety design. It means to design something to fail in a safe and predictable way. Cars are a good example: if you read end someone your front bumper is designed to collapse a certian way to prevent the majority of the force being transferred to the passanger compartment. Buildings are another place to see it. The most recent example of this is how the twin towers collapsed. The structure was designed to collapse inward in the event of a catastrophic failure to minimize damage to the surrounding area and for the most part that is what happened.

Well I’m an engineer in the automotive industry. There’s nothing we do to intentionally keep “the technology and efficientcy as far behind its possibilities to insure public dependence on the product, and their pockets full.” In fact, we’re quite broke from a historical perspective (but recovering very well), so maybe instead of increasing warranty durations on certain products, we ought to keep them. If you buy a subcompact, you get what you pay for after all.

Warranty costs are a big concern though. They’re the central focus of many of our “state of the company”-type briefings. And warranty costs are horrendous! I can pull them up for any component for any vehicle, and am often amazed by the costs. So yes, there’s a fine balance on the design side between optimizing the warranty duration and the inital cost of an item. But this isn’t the same as a deliberate effort to make a product last merely the warranty duration. As has been pointed out, why buy my company’s vehicles if a Honda lasts 10 years for only 15% higher purchase price? That’s competition.

I worry about Daimler investors now (no, I’m not one) – it looks good on the surface that all Chrysler-brand vehicles will have a 7-year warranty, but the costs are going to bite them on the behind for more than any perceived increase in sales.

Water heaters, gas and electric, seem to have a predictable lifetime. This is despite variations in usage, water conditions, etc. You can buy them with 5, 10, and 12 (15?) year warranties. Maybe its selective memory, but anecdotal evidence is that they seem to die fairly regularly within a year after the expiration.

On reflection, I don’t think this is a case of Engineered failure so much as its a case of Engineered success ; making sure the things statistically last for the warrantied period, without building in any extra cost to go much beyond that.

Balthisar: I was wondering if D-C’s 7-year warranty would bite them on the ass in a few years. I guess so.

They’re facing another problem in the future, too. It’s my understanding that most of Chrysler’s hot design guys (the people that drew up the Prowler and the PT Cruiser) work for General Motors now. So in a few years, when Chrysler’s current line-up is tired and worn-out, they might not be able to pull out any of those super-stylish vehicles that always save their butts.

To be fair, I could be wrong about Daimler-Chrysler. I imagine at some point someone compared their warranty costs to their expected sales projections as a result of the increased warranty durations. But, Chrysler vehicles are the lowest quality in the market. Disclaimer: in this biz, “quality” doesn’t mean how nice something is, what features it has, or its fuel mileage/kilometerage – it means “things gone wrong.” Hence, among the Big 2.5, Chrysler always has the worst quality. It’s possible Chrysler has had a secret 6-Sigma programming running for the last few years, and now suddenly their warranty costs will be close to zero.

I was just about to say that GM already has the best designs, but maybe they do need the designers more than Chrysler – have you seen their butt-ugly Cadillac, Aztec, Avalanche, H2, et al lately? The shivers are just running down my spine. My company’s cars may be “boring” (but new stuff is coming), but at least they’re not ugly! Of course this is an expression of taste; your mileage may vary. :slight_smile:

Do you work for Ford? (Nothing aginst Ford, BTW. My choice of cars was limited by the fact that my dad is a retired GM employee. I drive a 2-door Saturn.) A agree that the Aztek is horribly ugly, although I know people who like it. The thing with Cadillac is that they’re trying to make them compete with the Euro sedans. As for the H2, well the people that buy that car like ugly military vehicles. They’d buy an M1 tank if they could.

I noticed something the last time I heard a Dodge commercial: the 7-year warranty applies only to the powertrain, and it’s described as a “limited” warranty. It could be that the powertrain will last that long, but the electrical will start giving you problems before that. It could also be that the “limits” are strict enough that most warranties will be voided before the problems occurr.